I am one of the relatively few people who has read all ten of Will and Ariel Durant’s ten volume History of Civilization. It’s taken over 40 years to read my entire set—a freebie for joining the Book of the Month Club and buying X number of books for two years. Although I was teaching and caring for a newborn and lacked reading time, I ordered the set. They filled out my bookcase and the colorful jackets—now mostly gone—brightened up our living room.
A couple of years after receiving the set, I actually read the first one, Our Oriental Heritage. Our Sunday School Gospel Doctrine class was studying the Old Testament that year which gave me enough information to enjoy the sections on the Hebrews. I struggled through the sections on China, Japan, India, and Persia, but lacked the background to appreciate the history and philosophy of those foreign (to me) cultures.
Not until I was a SAHM expecting baby number three and in desperate need of afternoon sofa time did I start volume II, The Life of Greece. I found the Greek stories more familiar than Asian—and it was a shorter book—only 671 pages as opposed to a benumbing 938 in volume I. Baby number four ended my serious reading time. I packed up the Durant histories and toted them through several moves despite George’s head shaking. Our kids grew—some of them dipped into Durant briefly when taking AP World History in high school, but the books remained closed to me. Finally, I retired and tackled volume III, Caesar and Christ. This time Durant challenged me much less. During the 40 years since I’d closed volume II, I had completed a history minor and taught high school world history. Now I had enough background to enjoy Durant’s gossipy details of the Roman Empire and the early Christian Church. During the past few years, I’ve preceded through volume IV, The Age of Faith, (much more positive than calling it the Dark Ages), V, The Renaissance, VI, The Reformation (a whole volume dedicated to this change in religious thought and authority), VII, The Age of Reason, VIII, The Age of Louis XIV, IX, The Age of Voltaire, and X, Rousseau and Revolution.
I confess to skipping sections on architecture and the lives and styles of artists and musicians with whom I’m not familiar, but I have found the ten volumes a remarkably good read—especially when Ariel was added as co-author beginning with volume VII. The Durants are gossips and repeat rumors of the day as well as hard facts of the political and sexual escapades of historic figures. They tell us that Russia’s Catherine the Great “invented a new form of rule by making her successive lovers the executives of the government. Each of her lovers was, during his ascendancy, her prime minister; she added her person to the emoluments of the office, but she exacted competent service in return.” If only high school texts could contain such juicy tidbits, we might not have the problem of history repeating itself because nobody pays attention.
Durant’s books detailing government corruption, religious coercion, and human cruelty, as well as human nobility give me hope that the social problems of today are really no worse than they’ve always been—it’s just that there are more of us now and our weapons are more destructive. Hopefully, the 21st century will raise up thinkers and leaders who can move us from the abyss of self-destruction. I only wish the Durants could be here to record it.